Sponsored: Expansive Networks Empower Early-Career Investigators
A conversation with ALONA FYSHE, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Azrieli Global Scholar and assistant professor of computer science at the University of Victoria.
The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) fuels scientific advances that address broad
research questions and meet complex global challenges. The CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars Program
recognizes the essential role of early-career investigators in driving research innovation and developing
solutions to these challenges. The programme provides funding and training for emerging scientific
leaders, and connects them with CIFAR’s interdisciplinary networks of established researchers. Alona
Fyshe, CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar, describes how her experience in the programme catalyzed her career.
What are your research interests and goals?
I want to improve how computers understand language by studying how humans understand language. When it comes to language comprehension, there’s a huge gap between what computers can do and what people can do. Many people are interested in building better learning algorithms. I’m interested in addressing the gap from another perspective. If we study the brain and how the brain represents meaning, can we build better languageunderstanding algorithms? I use machine learning techniques to process brain images that were taken while people were reading. From these I can study how the brain represents information, and how people combine words to build higherorder meaning.
What drew you to the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars Program?
Because I straddle two areas — neuroscience and machine learning — I saw there were two programmes where I could fit: the Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind, and Consciousness; and Learning in Machines and Brains. CIFAR is very open to moving between programmes, so though my main association is with the Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind and Consciousness, I attend meetings with both programmes.
How is the programme structured?
Each of the CIFAR programmes has regular meetings, which are very interactive and discussion focussed. I had the opportunity to present at meetings for both programmes I was interested in, and both were receptive to what I’m working on. We also have yearly meetings where all 18 global scholars get together. These meetings have been really amazing because we’re all early-career and share the same experiences of trying to build a lab and figure out how to be successful academic researchers.
What resources and opportunities does this programme offer?
There’s an amazing set of resources available to us. The CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars funding is unallocated and less restricted than many other grants. There’s also Catalyst Funding for risky projects that may be difficult to fund otherwise, which is only available to people associated with a CIFAR programme. They have leadership training, negotiation assistance, and media training. I also had an assigned mentor, and found that mentorship came from all kinds of people in a very organic way. I had opportunities to go to China, Japan, and Paris. The amount of travelling I’ve done in the last year has been wonderful to establish connections this early in my career. I presented to a group of scientists at the Learning in Machines and Brains meeting, including one scientist who suggested that I give a talk at conference he was organizing. At that conference, I shared the stage with many leaders in neuroscience, which was amazing and allowed me to get my name out there. That is an opportunity I absolutely would not have had if I hadn’t been part of CIFAR.
What makes it unique?
This programme stands apart from others because of the access you have to the phenomenal networks associated with CIFAR. If you look through the fellows for any one of the CIFAR programmes, they are some of the biggest names in their fields. Having the ability to meet these people at this stage in your career is not something you would get from a standard grant or fellowship, and the opportunities available to you are different because of the conferences and workshops you get to attend.
What impact has this programme had on you as an early-career researcher?
Getting this amount of funding early in my career freed up time and allowed me to focus on other things, which really helped. But I think the most important aspect of the programme to me was the opportunities I had to expand my network. It’s a snowball effect. You meet one person and they open a door. You meet another person and they open another door. These small opportunities make such a big impact over time. I have already seen its impact on my career.
Learn more at: https://www.cifar.ca/research/global-scholars
How to make undergraduate research worthwhile
Practices might differ from country to country, but undergraduate students can be better served in research, says Shaun Khoo. One of the things that excited me about taking up a Canadian postdoctoral position was that, for the first time, I would get a chance to work with and mentor enthusiastic undergraduate researchers. I looked forward to the chance to gain mentorship skills while helping out future scientists, and maybe, eventually, freeing up some of my own time. As an Australian, I had never been pressured to volunteer in a lab — most Australian students don’t do any undergraduate research unless they enroll in an extra honours year, because the law prohibits unpaid student placements that are not a course requirement. This hasn’t held back overall research productivity in Australia, but it is a stark contrast to the North American environment, where many undergraduates feel pressure to get research experience as soon as they begin university. Most graduate medical students, for example, have previous research experience, and North American graduate schools have come to expect this from applicants. In Canada, nearly 90% of graduate medical students have past research experience1. Numerous articles extol2,3,4 the virtues of undergraduate research experience, but, unfortunately, evidence supporting the benefits of undergraduate research is limited. Most studies on the topic rely exclusively on self-reports that are corroborated less than 10% of the time by studies using more-direct measurements. For example, surveys find that undergraduate student researchers say that they have developed data-analysis skills — something that would normally involve lots of practical work — yet, when interviewed, most of them admit to never having done any data analysis. Like many postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, I spend most of my time with undergraduate students working on technical skills that they might need to work in the lab, but that don’t necessarily improve their conceptual understanding. For example, if I teach a student how to use a cryostat, they might become proficient in slicing brains, but they won’t necessarily learn how synaptic transmission works. Even if we manage to instil excitement for the intricacies of research in our undergraduate students, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that for the vast majority that continue in academic research, there will be no permanent jobs — we might just be saddling our undergraduates with unrealistic expectations. So how do we avoid wasting our time as mentors and our students’ time as learners and researchers? Here are my suggestions. Consider long-term goals. Undergraduate students should reflect on how their research experiences will prepare them for professional success. Should they be aiming for research experiences that are based on their courses, because it will better improve their understanding of scientific concepts? Will a given opportunity help them to reach their career goals by getting into a professional graduate programme? Can they commit to staying with a research programme long enough to become effective and potentially be a co-author? Acknowledge and offset opportunity cost. Undergraduate research requires significant time investments from both students and research supervisors. Undertaking such research might mean forgoing paid employment or other experiences, such as student societies, sport, performing arts or campus journalism and politics. Mentors can help undergraduate students by facilitating summer-scholarship applications or finding ways for students to get course credit for their work. Train for diverse careers. Most undergraduate students will pursue non-research careers or join professional graduate programmes. Those who try to continue in academia will eventually face a bleak post-PhD academic job market. Just as PhD students need preparation for a wide range of careers, so do undergraduate students need to build a transferable skill set. Mentors can encourage undergraduate students to build communication skills by, for example, encouraging them to present in lab meetings, or facilitating teamwork by having groups of undergraduate students complete a project together. Improve undergraduate research experiences. There’s limited non-anecdotal evidence that undergraduate research improves a given lab’s research productivity, or even student learning, but such research isn’t necessarily a waste of time. Before undergraduate students pad their CVs with research experience, they should reflect on what they will achieve by conducting research, and they should seek out meaningful projects to work on and develop relevant skills for their future career. For mentors, we have an obligation to consider the career development of undergraduate students and, for the sake of our publication records, we should aim to work with students who can commit at least a year to our projects. And, as much as possible, we should try to take the pressure off undergraduate students to do research, so that it can be an enjoyable learning experience rather than a box they need to check. doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07427-5 This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. References 1. Klowak, J., Elsharawi, R., Whyte, R., Costa, A. & Riva, J. Can. Med. Educ. J. 9, e4–e13 (2018). PubMed Google Scholar 2. Smaglik, P. Nature 518, 127–128 (2015). PubMed Article Google Scholar 3. Ankrum, J. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05823-5 (2018). Article Google Scholar 4. Trant, J. Nature 560, 307 (2018). Article Google Scholar Download references
Cracking Open a Cold One with the Flies
Caltech researchers demonstrate that fruit flies are attracted to carbon dioxide during periods of active foragingNews Writer: Elise Cutts Credit: Floris van Breugel Crack open a beer outside and it is a safe bet that you will soon be defending it from a few unwelcome drinking buddies. Fruit flies have a knack for appearing whenever someone opens up a can of beer or a bottle of wine, but how do they do it? In a study spanning six years and thousands of experiments, Caltech scientists discovered that fruit flies are attracted to carbon dioxide (CO2), a gas associated with their favorite foods—and some of our favorite beverages. The research overturns earlier scientific consensus that flies avoid CO2. The work was done in the laboratory of Michael Dickinson, the Esther M. and Abe M. Zarem Professor of Bioengineering and Aeronautics. A paper describing the research appears in the November 21 issue of the journal Nature. The study, led by former postdoctoral scholar Floris van Breugel (PhD '14), now an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, resolves a paradox surrounding fruit flies' response to CO2 that had puzzled scientists for decades. "The scientific literature about insects broadly shows that CO2 is a universal attractant," explains Dickinson. "But a long series of papers claimed that fruit flies are averse to CO2. They're basically the only insect for which that was reported." That fruit flies would avoid CO2 was especially confusing because flies eat yeast, single-celled fungi that produce CO2 as they ferment sugars. "Drosophila melanogaster, the standard laboratory fruit fly, evolved to eat the yeast that lives in fermenting fruit. It is a yeast specialist, and not just a yeast specialist but basically a brewing yeast specialist. The flies co-evolved with humans to live off of what we use to make beer and wine," says Dickinson. Appropriately, it was a home-brewing project that inspired van Breugel to pursue this line of inquiry: As he thought more about fermentation, he began to believe that, contrary to the findings of other scientists, flies ought to be attracted to CO2. Van Breugel set up a preliminary experiment that confirmed his hunch and drew him further into the problem. Van Breugel was working with mosquitoes at the time, doing experiments in the Dickinson Lab wind tunnel, a large, open chamber within which mosquitoes or flies could fly around or land on a platform from which plumes of CO2 are released. Cameras tracked the insects' movements within the tunnel and over the platform. "I thought, 'Why don't I put some flies in the same arena and see what they do?'" van Breugel says. "After I ran the experiment, I found that the flies had actually crawled through the tube where the CO2 was being emitted into the wind tunnel—they just kept crawling! So that confirmed that they are, indeed, attracted to CO2 and that I should really investigate that more closely," he says. After this first experiment, van Breugel and his co-authors continued studying flies in the wind tunnel and in other experimental setups designed to test how factors like time of day and wind speeds impacted their CO2 response. The researchers found that flies seek out CO2 when in an active state but avoid it while sluggish—for example, when they are sleepy or simply moving slowly because of factors like high winds or hunger. This observation resolved the apparent contradiction between the Dickinson Lab's results and those other studies showing that flies avoided CO2; the setups of earlier experiments likely caused the flies to become inactive. To van Breugel, this experiment is an important lesson for researchers: "If we want to understand how an animal functions, how the brain works, or even how genes function, we can't just be looking at animals in some very artificial laboratory environment. If you're going to do neuroscience, you need to make sure you're considering the behavioral and ecological context of the animal." Why do flies avoid CO2 when less active? Dickinson sees the behavior as a balance between the reward of proximity to food sources and the risk of danger. For example, since CO2 is produced by animals when they breathe, it attracts predators like parasitoid wasps, which lay their eggs on fruit fly eggs, larvae, and adult flies. "So, if a fly is going to sleep and not trying to find food, it wouldn't want to be near a gas that is going to attract things that are trying to eat it and its babies," he says. Dickinson and other researchers are still working to determine the biological clockwork underpinning how flies and other animals make "choices" like this one. "Our research lays the groundwork for experiments that will help us understand how decision-making happens in a fly, which is a good model for making a first pass at how decision-making might happen in other kinds of animals, eventually even humans," says van Breugel. The paper is titled "Distinct activity-gated pathways mediate attraction and aversion to CO2 in Drosophila." Ainul Huda, manager of the Dickinson Laboratory, is also a co-author. Funding was provided by the National Institutes of Health and the Simons Foundation. Michael Dickinson is an affiliated faculty member of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech.Related Links: Guiding Flight: The Fruit Fly's Celestial CompassThe Strange Case of the Scuba Diving Fly
Is Liveness a critical factor in learning Computer Science? Context, motivation, and feedback for learning programming
My CACM Blog post for November is on the topic of Direct Instruction, why it’s better than Discovery Learning, and how we should teach programming “directly.” I wonder about the limitations of Direct Instruction. I don’t think everything can be learned with direct instruction, even with deliberate practice. At SIGCSE 2016, John Sweller made a […]